Father Murphy's Secret
Father Benjamin Murphy latched his office door and shuffled over to his awaiting chair. Its soft, worn, leather seat invited his weary body to sink deeply into its permeating warmth. The dark wood of his office walls, now seemingly cold and forbearing, bore witness to his feeling of helplessness. The crumpled letter from Beth, his dead brother Peter’s, wife, was still clutched in his shaking hand. The good Father was not used to finding himself unable to cope, no matter what the circumstance. This was very different. This was personal.
The young man was coming this very afternoon. How would he tell him? He was a complete stranger. Father Murphy’s brother, Peter, never seemed to fail at anything in life, until of course, the war had all but done him in. And now, his beloved son may soon learn that Peter was not his real father.
Peter had been dead for all these years, the ghosts of Vietnam still haunting most of his life. He was now in eternal peace. Father Murphy was in Seminary during the war, and wrote often to his big brother. But one somber day, Beth shared a secret with Father Ben, and swore him to secrecy. Peter had been injured, and his injury would prevent him from ever becoming a father, Peter himself would never know. After that, the letters from Peter stopped coming.
Beth was a loving, generous woman. Father Murphy admired her for the undying devotion she had shown to Peter when he returned from the war. She knew her and Peter would have a hard road, but she would marry Peter and keep the secret Father Murphy and she had shared all these long years.
His name was Peter too, but his looks and mannerisms were that of his real father. And that scar on the nape of his neck was the duplication of Father Murphy’s own. A gentle wrap at his office door brought him back from his deep thoughts. It was Sister Margaret with his tea.
Sister Margaret stood for several moments, adjusting her habit, moving her thin, rough hands down her gown She was never quite sure of herself with Father Murphy. In her efforts to tend to his comfort, while at the Seminary, she found his social graces lacking warmth. Father Murphy's work left him little time for friendships. Sister Maggie was counted among the few friends he did have, and for that she was grateful.
“I’ll take my tea in the garden today, Sister Margaret,” “Please leave it on my table near the lilacs.”
“Yes, Father,” was all Maggie could manage to say.
Maggie busied herself in the garden as she watched the movements of Father Murphy, seated on the bench nearby. He was deep in thought and it seemed as though he was struggling through something heavy on his mind. She had never seen him look so helpless.
Margaret admired Father Murphy, and she so much wanted to help him. If only he would open up to her. Father Murphy watched the good Sister as she tended her garden. She was a wonderful gardener, and a long-time friend. Maybe he could confide in her his perplexing secret. He couldn't come to a rational decision and for the first time in his life, he felt completely lost. He rose from his bench and walked straight towards Sister Margaret.
"I wonder if I can have a moment with you Sister Margaret?" he asked as he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his brow and smiled warmly at his old friend.
"Certainly Father, what is it"? Margaret replied.
"Come and sit with me, I have something I need your opinion on, of a somewhat personal nature... can I pour you some tea"?
"I'll get that, you sit down now, you look very troubled." she remarked. "How can I help you Father Ben?"
Father Murphy pulled out the letter from Beth and handed it to Margaret. Margaret perched her reading glasses onto the bridge of her nose and began to read the very personal letter.
"Oh my, I see now why you have been so unhappy these last few days." Have you made a decision yet, “she asked.
"Well, yes and no... that is, I think I am unable to make a rational decision. "I think the good Lord has decided to leave me on my own on this... that is to say, I can't seem to decide on what would be best, for everyone involved."
"Well, if you don't mind my saying so Father, since Beth is gone, and did not have it in her heart to tell her son of this while she was living... well, I just think it is better left as it is."
"What would it accomplish to tell him now"? "He has good memories of his father, and of his mother, and now, he has you, whom he knows as his uncle."
"I've never been able to refuse her wishes, Ben added, why would she ask this of me now?"
"Why indeed, she said, perhaps she had feelings of guilt, maybe she thought you would want it known to him." "I believe in her own heart, she would never have told him, and in my opinion she is asking too much of you to do so now."
"Thank you, Sister Margaret, your opinions have always meant a great deal to me, as has your friendship" Ben lamented.
"I am happy to help Father, you and I have known each other for many years in the service of our Lord, I too appreciate our friendship."
"God bless you, Father Ben."
"And you, Sister Maggie."
He called her Maggie, he hadn't called her that in a long time, Margaret smiled to herself, and now she prayed he would come to the right decision concerning Peter.
Young Peter climbed out of the back of the taxi that brought him to St. Bartholomew’s front steps. He paid the waiting driver, and turned to take in the view of the magnificent gardens surrounding the 200 year old Sanctuary.
Summer in the little town of Pepperville was early in coming. Every tree wore thick, dark green foliage, and the fragrant scent of summer flowers drifted through the air. He had buried his mother only a week ago, and now he would finally meet his estranged uncle. There was little time left to get the answers he had come for. He adjusted his collar and ran his sun-tanned hands through his straight, ruddy brown hair one last time. He checked his watch, 12 noon, on the dot. His punctuality was commendable.
Funny how things worked out, he, being called into the priesthood like Uncle Ben. Peter had always been kind of a loner, devoted to his calling, very little time for friendships. He hoped that he and his Uncle Ben would become friends. His Mother would have liked that.
Father Murphy found young Peter sitting on a bench in the garden. Nearby, was the tea tray, and Sister Margaret, making a futile attempt at conversation. The smell of lilacs assailed Father Ben's nose, and the warm summer breeze calmed his troubled heart.
Father Peter Murphy was taller than Ben had imagined. His hair, very much like his own, was a task to keep back from his face. The elder Father Murphy’s hair was stark white.
Sister Margaret was delighted to see the sparkle back in Father Murphy’s eyes when he talked with Peter. However now, when she went to signal them for dinner, she noted a sense of overwhelming sadness on his face.
Just a few moments before, all seemed to be going so well. She couldn't help feeling sorry for poor Beth, she only wanted to give her husband the son he always wanted, and could not have. She lied to him about her fertility. It wasn’t her who was the problem, it was her husband's war injury. She would not allow the doctors to reveal the truth to him, knowing it would devastate him. So, when Beth came to Ben, with a plea to help her, he
did the one thing he could do to help, even though his vows forbade it. They swore to keep it their secret, but in the end, she could no longer conceal the lie. She asked Ben to reveal his identity to young Peter. It was her final request.
The two Priests had conversed in the garden, well into the afternoon; about the church; about Peter's decision to join the priesthood, and now the conversation took a more personal turn. Father Murphy grew silent, he had decided against sharing the information in his sister-in-law's letter with Peter. Sister Margaret was right, Peter need never know.
Peter was putting off what he had come to find out. He needed to know if it was true what he had learned about his mother and his uncle.
"Uncle Ben, I need to talk to you about a personal matter, you see I have learned something about my mother and about my father's inability to have children after the war."
Ben was in complete shock, how could this be, he already knows... now what would he do, tell him the truth? He may have to now.
"I see, said Father Murphy, perhaps we should talk in my office, but first, I'm sure you must be hungry, and Sister Margaret is signaling dinner.
After dinner, the two men walked solemnly together to Ben's office. Sister Margaret watched the young Priest as he followed his uncle to his office. From the look on Father Ben's face she sensed something had gone very wrong. Ben invited Peter to sit down.
"Peter, I'm not sure how to start, your mother and I...."
"Uncle Ben, Peter interrupted, I know you helped my mother with the adoption, I know my father was unable to have children." "What I need from you now is your help, you see, I want to find my real father, my mother told me he is still living.
"Peter, that's not possible, I mean...."
"Uncle Ben, I'm sick and I need a kidney, and unless I can find a suitable donor soon, I may die." "My mother told me you would be able to help me, she said that only my real father would be a match, and that you knew of his identity." "Mother was very frail and though she never admitted it to me before she died, I speculated that I must have been adopted.
Father Murphy was once again stunned by the words of young Peter. Peter believed that he was adopted, and now he needed a kidney, and only Ben could provide one. Ben needed a moment to take this all in, to regroup, to pray.
"Forgive me Peter, I need to visit the chapel, will you excuse me? Meet me back in my office after you get settled in your room, and I will reveal the identity of your real father, though I had hoped it would never have to come to this."
Sister Margaret was just leaving the chapel when she noticed Father Murphy approaching. A look of sadness once again appeared on his face. She feared that he had bad news.
"Sister Margaret, it looks as though I may have to tell Peter the truth, he is sick and needs a kidney, and I am the only chance he has of surviving.
"Oh, Ben, I am so sorry, maybe it was meant to be, no wonder Beth was eager to have you tell Peter the truth." Maggie said. "I will see that Father Peter is comfortable, she added, and please let me know if there's anything else I can do."
"An extra prayer couldn't hurt," Ben answered.
Ben took Sister Maggie's hand between his and gave her a reassuring pat.
"Thank you Sister Maggie," he replied.
Peter settled in his bedroom at the rectory and made his way back to his uncle's office. Finally he would know the where-abouts of his real father. He prayed that once he found him, he would be willing to help him.
"Hello, Peter, did you find your accommodations suitable?" Ben asked.
"Oh yes, quite suitable, Sister Margaret helped me to get settled, she is a blessing."
"Yes she is, she has been with us for many years and we are glad to have her."
"Peter, before we go on, I would like to find out if I would be a match for a kidney."
"I couldn't ask that of you, I think it only right that the man who is my father should come forward to help me first."
"Peter, I am your father."
Peter thought he had been hit by a truck. His stomach began to feel queasy, and all he could do is stare at his uncle in total disbelief.
"How is that possible…. I mean my mother and you... but you’re a Priest," Peter stammered.
"Just let me explain Peter, it is not what you think" Ben said. "Your mother never wanted your father to know he could not have children, so she lied and told him it was her fault." "Shortly after that, she told your father she needed to go in for a "procedure," that would enable them to have children." Then she came to me and ask me to help, I was young and about to be ordained, but she was so desperate, and I loved my brother, and would do anything to make it possible for the two of them to have a child." "We went together to the clinic, Beth and I, it was nothing on my part, just a little of my sperm, it wasn't too much to ask, the procedure was new, and we weren't even sure it would work." "Three months later, I learned she was pregnant with you. "After that I tried to stay out of their lives." "That's why I never kept in touch, it was wrong, I was a Priest, I should never have agreed, now I would not blame you if you turned me in, I deserve to be punished for such an act" Ben admitted.
Peter, for the moment, could not move. He wanted to kill him and hug him, all at one time. His father, perhaps by unusual method, was bearing his soul to him. He and his mother did not have an affair, how could he have imagined that for even a second. Just a bittersweet secret. And now, he could have a father again, and perhaps a friend. He needed that, and so did Father Ben.
Peter jumped up so quickly, it frightened Ben, and instead of the solid punch in the face he had been expecting, he found himself wrapped in the largest, warmest arms he had ever known.
"Now then, about that kidney, the teary eyed Priest exclaimed, perhaps it would be a good time to get ourselves to the hospital so we can get you on the road to recovery." "After all, we have a lot of catching up to do, don't you think?"
Sister Margaret came to the garden after her latest visit to the Chapel, and found the two men, talking and laughing like two, long lost, friends.
“Praise be the power of prayer,” she whispered to herself, and ran with wings on her heels to the kitchen to fill the tea pot with her finest blend of herbs.
And, perhaps a snip of summer lilac, to sweeten the brew!